'Why Do I Always Want to Bail on Plans With My Friends?'

Humans tend to fare poorly at predicting how we are going to feel in the future—and often totally misjudge what will make us happy.
September 22, 2020, 11:00am
A young woman is sitting on a sofa and using her smart phone comfortably in the living room at home.
Collage by VICE Staff | Photo via Getty
How to actually stop doing the things you know aren't exactly good for you.

There’s a palpable relief that comes from canceling plans you’re no longer in the mood for. Part of that is the knowledge that you won’t have to make the effort to do whatever the planned thing is: put on the outfit, figure out the transportation, make small talk with someone’s annoying partner, figure out how to split the bill. Even though Zoom hangouts or phone calls should, in theory, offset some of this dread, not even a pandemic can eradicate the temptation to bail on friends at the last minute.

“Canceling plans is something many people really like to do,” Johanna Jarcho, an assistant professor of psychology at Temple University in Philadelphia, told VICE. “It provides a lot of relief for people.”

But even people who love their alone time need some social interaction, and often end up feeling lighter and more connected after quality time spent with pals, whether it’s in person or via a video call. That’s because authentic social connection is beneficial to our health and well-being. Still, as a scheduled event nears, that dread can start to creep in. If you’re often tempted to bail on the friends who you really like and always have a good time with, here are a few things that might be going on.

You're saying yes without taking the time to fully consider the invitation.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, around 7.1 percent of adults in the U.S. suffer from social anxiety disorder. One surprising way that low-level social anxiety can manifest, according to Jarcho, is in immediately agreeing to do something without taking the time to properly evaluate the ask, and not suggesting a different, more desirable plan when necessary. This is a form of conflict avoidance; agreeing to proposed plans is easier in the moment than figuring out a better option for everyone—until the time comes to actually act on those plans.

“For some people, the default answer to things is ‘yes,’ with little consideration given to the logistics,” Ric Mathews, a New York–based psychotherapist and mental health counselor, told VICE. “This is a sign that they may have issues with setting boundaries. Learning to say no can sometimes be hard. It may require some reflection and investigation. But once you do, it's actually easier to commit to plans, and to feel good about those choices. It can be quite liberating.”

Communicating your needs—and also being supportive when your friends communicate theirs—will improve time spent socializing for everyone involved. “Suggesting alternative plans that are more convenient could help you feel less social pressure while keeping the relationships strong,” Mathews said.

You’re stressed about utilizing your time in the “best” way possible.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of trying to optimize your life—to attempt to plan your days, nights, and weekends perfectly. “It can be a product of FOMO,” Mathews said. “Some people tend to agree to a lot of things, and overbook themselves in the hopes that having all the options available will give them more opportunity to have the ‘best’ time.” But, of course, you can’t possibly do everything, so backing out of something is often the only way to actually manage your time.

Additionally, if you feel like you’re always busy, time alone to read (ahem, scroll Twitter and Instagram) or just sit quietly can feel like a compelling need—one that’s potentially more valuable than socialization. And, surprise: that perspective is actually totally valid. “People are pretty overscheduled, and the idea of just having some time to oneself is really important,” Jarcho explained. “Time alone can be very regenerative and important, whether you’re an introvert or not.”

It’s also worth noting that people who mostly identify as introverts, but who have jobs that require them to be more extroverted often find themselves putting in a lot of extra effort in order to thrive professionally. “When it comes to making or keeping social plans, they have a hard time finding the energy to do so. They’re actually feeling like they’re in self-preservation mode outside of work,” Mathews explained.

You're not good at predicting how much you’ll enjoy the hangout.

In psychological literature there’s something called affective forecasting which shows that humans tend to fare poorly at predicting how we are going to feel in the future—and often totally misjudge what will make us happy. Ergo, it’s easy to forget, when you’re sitting in your apartment in your Soffe shorts and TV on the Radio T-shirt, how much real, authentic enjoyment you will get out of putting on real clothes and meeting up with friends in the park.

“Humans are frequently very bad at predicting what an experience will be like once they arrive somewhere,” Marlone Henderson, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin told VICE. “Particularly when it has to do with emotional things. What we predict in our heads often just doesn’t map onto what it will be like when we experience it in reality.”

You’re low-key influenced by popular introvert memes.

We’ve all seen them: the “sorry I’m late, I didn’t want to come” jokes on Instagram and the tweets about how good it feels to cancel plans. “When it comes to cultural trends, introverts are winning for sure,” says Jarcho.

In social psychology, this is known as the concept of conformity—a change in behavior in response to real or imagined social pressure. Conformity isn’t always a bad thing; this type of content can certainly make people feel better about tending to their mental health, or going out less during a pandemic. But it can have negative consequences too—like if you’re subtly encouraged to isolate yourself more than you would otherwise, or to stop tending to important friendships.

“These images, even if they’re not necessarily accurate depictions of reality, sink into our consciousness. You see people reposting memes about ditching plans, and all of a sudden that feels normative and like what most people are doing,” Henderson said. “So when you’re debating, ‘I could go out or I could stay in…’ you have all of this information that suggests that the right thing to do culturally is to stay in and chill.”

You’re out of the habit.

When we stop doing anything routine for an extended period of time, picking it up again becomes much more effortful—whether it’s running in the mornings, calling your parents, or eating veggies every day. And it’s no different with socializing. “As we grow older, we don’t have regular interactions in the way that we used to,” Jarcho explained.“When we were younger, many of us had consistent, habitual interactions—like going out every Friday night.”

The infrequency of your hangouts (or any social activity) means it’s a bigger deal (i.e., requiring more effort) when you do decide to socialize. And the lack of recent memories of having fun socializing in person or on Zoom can affect your “Should I bail?” decision-making process.

“As you’re planning your future, you’re looking at your past to guide you about what you will find most enjoyable,” Jarcho said. But the repetition and frequency of some memories trump others—so if you’re sitting around reading or watching TV more often than you’re talking to friends, you might start to associate staying in with a more positive experience.

Your personal values are changing.

Human connection is important throughout our lives—psychologists refer to this simply as the “need to belong.” That need has to be addressed one way or another—whether through family ties, romantic relationships, or friendships. But there’s a lot of variety in terms of how much and in what ways we need to belong in order to feel satisfied. The amount and degree of social interaction people require at a baseline level varies from person to person, and shifts and evolves as we progress through different stages in our lives.

“Some people only need a small circle to feel truly whole and connected, and some people need more,” explained Henderson. “Whatever that comfort level is, there are times in life where people feel satisfied with their circles, and others when people feel more vulnerable and have a greater need to hang out with friends more often.” For example, your vulnerability level—and desire to hang out with friends—is typically high right after you’ve been through a breakup.

“Circumstances arise that may drive someone further in either the extroverted or introverted direction,” Mathews said. “People's priorities shift in response to what matters to them, and what matters to them changes over time.”

If you’re thinking of canceling plans with friends, a good question to ask yourself is what, specifically, you’ll do with your time if you don’t attend this particular hangout. “Declining invitations might mean you’re deciding to put energy and focus into building a family, educational pursuits, self-care, or spirituality,” explained Mathews. “It's an error to equate declining to hang out with friends as a lack of interest about or care for those friendships. Most people will have periods of time where other things need to come first. Understanding that shows empathy.”

You’re in denial about the state of your friendship.

While not wanting to hang out with friends doesn’t necessarily mean you don’t care about them, it could also be the case that this relationship isn’t actually bringing you joy and connection anymore—and you’re having a difficult time getting out of it. “There are friends that are still your ‘friend’ out of habit, but every time you hang out with them, it isn’t great,” Jarcho said. “It’s hard to have a difficult conversation where you break up the friendship; it’s easier to just go along with plans that you’re not super into.” If you find yourself consistently dreading a hangout with one particular person—or feeling drained or annoyed afterward—it might mean that you’ve outgrown the relationship. If your friendship has reached its expiration date, it may be time to break up.

You’re actually not doing great, mental health–wise.

If you find yourself consistently and uncharacteristically dreading and avoiding interaction with your favorite people for a sustained period of time, it may be beneficial to talk to a professional, just to get some perspective.

“Everyone feels depressed or socially anxious from time to time,” Jarcho said. But, there are certain signs to watch for that can indicate your behavior might be cause for concern. “The critical parts to be concerned about are three-fold: the timeline; the chronicity—how consistent the feeling is; and the impairment—are the symptoms impacting your life in an undesirable way?” she said.

By these measures, a diagnosis of social anxiety is indicated by six months of intense and consistent fear or anxiety when it comes to social situations. A diagnosis of depression, on the other hand, is indicated by two weeks of “feeling a lack of pleasure in almost all activities most of the day, nearly every day” coupled with other noticeable changes in appetite, sleep patterns, energy, and capacity to make decisions.

Of course, not wanting to hang out with your pals for a few weeks doesn’t necessarily mean you are experiencing depression or social anxiety disorder. Jarcho said that the signs listed above could also be related to alcohol, drugs, medication, or an undiagnosed medical condition. And living through a pandemic isn’t exactly fun. But that’s all the more reason to talk to a healthcare provider at some point.

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